John Gately, the Great Helmsman of St Hilda’s Services in Athlone, died on Saturday, 4 July 2009, having just turned fifty-two. His passing stunned his family, local community and all those who had come to know and prize his unique fusion of bonhomie, generosity and huge ability. He joined St Hilda’s as its leader and guide when only 21 years old (in January 1979) and in the intervening 30 years grew the fledgling service from its modest beginnings (a school, a care unit, and a portacabin-based adult service) to a flourishing and comprehensive array of local services, providing the full range of supports across the lifecycle.
John masked a consummate professionalism behind a bluff and nonchalant exterior. His planning and attention to detail were meticulous and his ability to conjure resources for St Hilda’s was uncanny. While he attributed his success to his formal grounding in accountancy, to many of us fishing in the same pool it seemed to owe as much to alchemy and charm. He liked to present himself as wily and sceptical, somebody who would not be easily taken in. This was undoubtedly true. Indeed, he loved to pit his wits against whomsoever – and the pleasure of the joust was eclipsed only by the pleasure of the re-telling.
But in many ways, John was also the softest of touches. He gave freely of himself to each and anyone who sought his assistance and he was the most resourceful and savvy of counsellors. His financial acumen was a byword in the disability world and in the wider community. The financial Houdini manoeuvre he orchestrated for Athlone Town Football Club is one of his better-known exploits. But there were many, many others. John was larger than life and hard to typecast – many of us were recently ‘thrown’ to hear of his distinguished endeavours with a local ladies soccer team.
His passing leaves a massive gap in the lives of so many – primarily for Ann, his wife; his children — Mairead, Maeve, and Eoin — and his much-invoked mother, Maisie.